Saturday, April 5, 2014

American River 50-mile 2014: a smarter race

It was my 95th ultra since 2006 and 7th consecutive American River, although I had miserable asthma crisis in the first editions which I have been thankfully able to get rid of for the past three years, with Singulair. I walked 34 miles of the course in 2008 and dropped at Beals Point in 2009. Needless to say, I didn't have a love affair with this race initially... Last year I had a breakthrough an managed to clock a Personal Best of 6:47:39 and placing 4th thanks to a slow year. For those reading this blog regularly, you know I've been injured and unable to train all February and March except for winning my age group at the US Nationals Road 50K then agonizing with cramps at Way Too Cool 6 days later. I took 18 days off after Way Too Cool and, the MRI not showing anything noticeable, logged 100 miles over 8 days, leaving 2 days to taper before this 50-mile. Not a model of injury recovery and training, but I didn't feel any pain so I decided to toe the line, start conservatively and see what happens.

The major news about American River is that, after starting in Sacramento since 1982, Race Director Julie Fingar and her staff redesigned a course starting in El Dorado Hills, claiming more trails.
So everybody was eager to discover this new initial section and when I say everybody that's many people as there were 1,072 entrants, making it comparable in size to JFK 50-mile.

We started promptly at 6 am (the first 500-runner wave, followed by a second one at 6:15) and it was still quite dark despite a clear sky. When we drove with Agnes on Friday afternoon, there were quite a few showers and I become worried that the weather forecast wasn't going to be the one I had read before leaving, leading me to not take any jacket. Although we still need so much more rain, I was relieved to see the clouds gone when I woke up at 3 am. It has indeed been a gorgeous day and the rain had probably also cleared up the pollen. The trails were humid and soft but the creeks were very low and the mud at certain places had already almost dried up. Perfect conditions for this 35th anniversary edition! The remaining clouds on Friday evening:

After starting on a road section for less than a mile, we were soon on a trail and it was still dark, a good excuse to slow down, around 7:30 min/mile, quite a big change from our crazy 6:30 or so min/mile starts on the bike path of the previous course! I followed a "train" of runners including Ethan Veneklasen and Mark Lantz. Our average pace was 7:39 when we reached the first levee, now with good visibility and ready to hammer down the bike path, meaning running downhill along Lake Natoma. I passed Mark around mile 11, thanking him for the initial smart pace. At the turnaround before crossing the American River, my pace was now down to 7:12. Slightly faster than my plan but, again, that section was mostly downhill. I stopped at Negro Bar (mile 20) to refill my Gu2O bottle as Agnès was nowhere to be seen. She told me later that she got stuck at the start and had to wait for one hour before they reopened the Brown Ravine Marina road which derailed her plan.

I traded places with a few runners, me faster on trails, them faster on the asphalt and reached Beals Point (mile 24.3) in 10th position (I learned later). Here are the top 10 runners at Beals Point:
Agnès was there to assist me for a quick refill at the aid station and to encourage me.

And off I was after 24 miles, for the remaining trail marathon...
Agnès managed to make it to Granite Bay too, although I would not stop at that aid station. Recto... voilà, verso!
I passed three runners in the hill leading to the Granite Bay "roller coaster", again I had no idea about what was going on with the head of the race but I couldn't care less, my main goal being to keep my injury under control and keep a consistent pace. After Granite Bay, Julie had us doing a 2.2-mile detour, called Twin Rocks Loop, to ensure the course was 50 miles.
I wasn't really sure what we were doing as I'm not so good with course directions anyway and orientation in general, so I followed the orange ribbons and chalk signs. I must highlight that the course was extremely well marked, you had to be either blind or quite disoriented to get lost today! By the way, I passed the 50K-mark in this loop in 3:54 (faster than my Way Too Cool!), and had ran the first marathon in 3:14 (thanks, NorCar Ultras for marking the trail with that mark).

The next section through Buzzward's Cove and Horseshoe Bar includes a tiring succession of short and rocky ups and downs which always have a big toll on me. Thankfully, I developed my mental to handle them but I still can't believe how brutal this is when you want to maintain a 8 or 8:30 min/mile pace and you have 35-40 miles in your legs... Not only I had to pay a lot of attention not to fall (well, maybe I'm getting old after all...), but it was hard to also manage avoiding the poison oak on both sides of the single track. 1/2 mile before Horseshoe Bar, Nicolas Glatt, whom I had passed before Granite Bay, caught up with me, with his pacer. That gave me a boost/kick to keep going and maintain the pace, and I managed to distance them with 12 miles to go. The racing bug had finally caught up with me... ;-)

Agnès was also at the Rattlesnake Bar aid station and refilled my Gu2O, I was now good in terms of fluid for the last 9-mile stretch, although I was glad to get more ice at Last Gasp (mile 47.5).
There was a runner 2-3 minutes ahead of me at Rattlesnake Bar but I didn't have the energy to chase him. At this point, some people were saying I was in 7th, others in 10th (that must have included three pacers), then I saw Penny Beeston running on the trail in the other direction, who said she thought I was in 6th. With my bib #7 and my lowered goals and expectations for today, 7th was good enough and I went deep to keep moving despite the fatigue and lack of training. I ran most of the last 3.5 miles, some quite steep, but I had to walk a bit in the last mile, finally hit by some cramps. Still, so much better at mile 49 of 50 than for 18 miles at Way Too Cool 50K a month ago...

Nobody was to be seen behind so I wasn't in a hurry. I crossed the line in 6:51:33, 1st M50-59 (Greg Nacco would take 2nd in our age group in 8:00:48 and Veteran Tim Twietmeyer didn't make it today unfortunately -- Errata: Tim actually ran with on if his sons, Austin, 19, and they finished together in 10:29, what a great family story!). I also placed 2nd Masters behind Thomas Reiss who had a great day, taking third overall and clocking a 6:39:59 (in Brooks Connect!).
The race was won by Joel Frost-Tift, 25, of Los Angeles, and a 2:26 marathoner, in 6:26:52.
He was followed by Matthew Morales, 24, in a time of 6:30:40. Congrats to both of them for their successful first 50-milers!
I wouldn't leave the NorCal Ultras' Ultra Village at the finish line before getting the best of the massages, by Ve Loyce, the ultimate Monster of Massage. If it wasn't for my tibia which is painful again this Saturday evening (damned!), I'm sure I'd be running tomorrow, my muscles being drained by this powerful and healthy deep massage.
A big thank you to Julie and her crew, their professionalism, ultra running expertise and attention to all the details related to an event ran on such a large and sometimes remote area!
It was cool to see the originality of each aid station, Bill Dodson's costume at Main Bar, then the the Roseville football team serving the post race lunch in uniform!

And a big thank you to Agnès for driving around all day and back to the Bay Area and taking pictures, leaving her no time to even read a magazine...

Last but not least, since a few of you asked me on Facebook: what do I think of the new course? Many people argued that is was much slower, from 10 to as high as 20 minutes. Personally, I just lost 4 minutes from last year. On one side I'm a bit older (sometimes aging counts... ;-), and was clearly undertrained. On the other hand, I had a smarter race thanks to a slower start which prevented me from bonking in the second half. The first 2.5 miles on a trail, in the dark, are certainly slower than the equivalent mils on the bike path of the original course. But then, it's 12 miles on a donwhill bike path which is clearly faster. The next section up to Beals Point and Auburn is then similar, except for the additional 2 miles of Twin Rocks which aren't the most technical. So, maybe a few minutes lost in these additional 4.5 miles of trail but probably less than 5 minutes for the elite guys, who, by the way, tend to not participate to AR anymore since the race isn't in the Montrail Series and therefore not offering Western States spots. Now, for us mortals, I believe this initial trail section is an opportunity to actually start more conservatively and likely to save time afterwards by a better pacing early on. Assuming you don't twist an ankle in the dark... So, overall, maybe 5-10 minutes slower, at least for those not afraid of trails of course! With great conditions as the ones we had today, I'm sure experienced ultra speedsters can break 6 hours again!
Looking forward to coming back for this top event and course. Tim Twietmeyer has a record 33 finishes and it was Gary Wang's 20th finish today, what a commitment! Or just passion and love for this South counter-part of Western States, both races finishing in Auburn, the self-proclaimed world capital of ultra!


tsbjf said...

Congrats. You never cease to amaze me...

tsbjf said...

Ok, now it's Joanne for real. :) Just read this, and wow, amazing job! And what an amazing crew Agnes is, she's a good example. :) Also, that's really awesome that you found something to help with your allergies for this race. Must have been frustrating those first few years, knowing that you could go faster, but the allergy issue was holding you back.

Daniel said...

Excellent BLOG: You and I have something in common. We are both 7th year consecutive finishers of the AR50 2008-2014 except that I am much slower and ran my first Ultra (AR50)at age 50. I liked the new course and was only 1 minute slower than last year. See you in 2015!

Stephen Pearcy said...

Very nice chronology of the race. Yep, that section near Horseshoe Bar with the short, rocky ups and downs was indeed frustrating. I guess it's a good challenge of one's patience. If you're ever a lot further back like I was, you also have folks in front you want to pass and folks behind who want you to step aside so they can pass you. Meanwhile, you're trying to dodge poison oak and mainly just trying get done with that section. I thought the hardest part was that first (steeper) hill in the 3.5 mile finish. It was a huge relief after about 1/4 mile when it transitioned into something less steep. If it had stayed that steep, it would have been a brutal finish.

Unknown said...

i remember seeing you run at Headlands, great race man, just awesome.